Allostatic Load

Maybe you can identify. You take decent care of yourself…eat your veggies, sleep okay, exercise, and don’t overindulge. And yet, you’re often exhausted. Even if you rest all weekend, you sometimes don’t recharge. What gives?

The answer will be slightly different for everyone. (But spoiler alert, it’s stress and trauma.) And the intricacies can best be explained using the model of allostatic load.

The cost of doing business

Think of allostatic load in terms of the price you pay each time your body responds to a stressor. Every time you fight a virus, argue with family, struggle with pain, or even just exercise, you’re expending energy. And then you’ve got to eat, drink, relax, and sleep to recharge.

In an ideal world, we’d fully recharge each day. But this modern world is not so ideal for our ancient organism.

Instead, chronic stress typically whittles away at our energy. Day by day, we add a bit more debt to the load and slowly get depleted. So, allostatic load is this cumulative wear-and-tear that chronic stress takes on the body.

How this often plays out

Let’s say you’ve got decent reserves, so most days you handle the load just fine. But then comes a particularly stressful day, where you barely eat or drink, let alone sit down. At a certain point, you splutter out. Now it’s going to take much more rest and fuel than usual to recharge.

What if this happens day after day? Or you start out depleted? Like if you live with…

…unmanaged chronic infections like Lyme or covid
…unresolved trauma
…ongoing, systemic stressors like racism

What if the demands pile up overwhelmingly high? Welcome to overload.

Allostatic overload

At some point, too many demands will outstrip our ability to replenish. Then, no amount of food, drink, or sleep can keep up with the output. We’ve reached allostatic overload.

We either keel over or pull the energy from somewhere. That somewhere is the fight-or-flight system. So, all the stress hormones and changes meant to help you lift a car? They’re now helping you go to work.

But this “fuel” has a high cost, especially over time. Eventually, tissues break down, chronic fatigue sets in, or chronic diseases appear.

Giving ourselves a break

Many of us have been fueling on stress physiology our entire lives—we’ve had to. It feels normal. So, when we “reset” after a stressful period, it’s back to a baseline that’s still quite draining.

And then we wonder why we’re still tired. It’s because we are tired.

The paths out of these cycles are many, but the first step is trusting your body. If you feel tired, you likely are. There are reasons, even if you don’t know them. So start by giving yourself a break. And then, really, give yourself a break.

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